Hobbyists and drone industry giants were relieved last week when California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have severely limited drone operation in the state. California Senate Bill 142, which passed both houses of the legislature in late August, aimed to prohibit drone flights below 350 feet over private property without permission from the landowner. The bill would have allowed a property owner to file trespassing charges against operators flying aircraft over his or her property in violation of the elevation restriction.
Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed rules for drones, commercial operation has a ceiling of 500 feet and recreational use is capped at 400 feet. The bill, therefore, would have limited operation to a relatively narrow band of airspace and posed challenges to flying over large portions of the state.
As popularity for unmanned aircraft has grown, concerns over their operation have risen as well. Chief among these fears has been the collision hazard that drones pose to traditional, manned aircraft. California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, author of the bill, cited private property rights and privacy concerns as the impetus for the proposed legislation. She and other proponents of the measure hoped that California would join many other states in protecting individuals from drone-operating voyeurs.
In his veto statement, Governor Brown recognized the concerns addressed in the bill, but said that he feared the proposal “could expose the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation and new causes of action.”
The Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group that lobbied heavily on the drone industry’s behalf, was pleased with the decision. “With this veto, the Governor has set a path for drones and other unmanned aircrafts to continue revolutionizing a wide array of consumer and commercial activities, creating new businesses and jobs and providing life-changing solutions,” said CEA President Gary Shapiro in a statement about the decision.
The CEA estimates that unmanned vehicles could generate $14 billion in commercial revenue in California over the next 10 years . Other titans such as Google and Amazon were also heavily invested in the efforts to resist the proposal. Programs like Amazon’s highly publicized plan to utilize drone-delivery would be difficult to implement if proposals like SB 142 were to pass.
Senator Jackson vows to take up the fight again next year, but the industry has undoubtedly won an important victory in the nation’s most populous state.
Nick Bessette is an editor on the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law review, and a member of the University Michigan Law School class of 2017.